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While others scream, Sandra Fluke tries more reasoned approach to hot-button issues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2013 - One year after Rush Limbaugh made Sandra Fluke a four-letter household word, she told an audience at Washington University she wants to make her points as a talker, not a screamer.

Fluke, of course, is the Georgetown University law school graduate – she since has passed the bar exam – who testified before Congress about the need for religious-affiliated institutions to provide contraception as part of their health-care coverage.

For her trouble, she was blasted by Limbaugh as a “slut” and a “prostitute.” He added: “She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."

During her talk Tuesday night, presented by a number of campus organizations headed by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, Limbaugh’s comments got only a passing reference, as did his Missouri roots. Fluke’s larger point, she said, was that there is a lot of common ground at the intersection of religious liberty and women’s rights, and she is doing her best to try to make the discussion a reasoned, reasonable one.

“This is not a conflict,” she said of the two points of view.

Calling herself a “PK” – a pastor’s kid who is a person of faith – Fluke said she believes in religious liberty even when she disagrees with a religious institution’s particular claim or point of view.

If a religion’s tenets against contraception are allowed to interfere with an individual’s health-care benefits, she said, it may be difficult to imagine where such a process can end.

She cited situations where an employer’s personal beliefs, like those of the owner of Hobby Lobby, may determine the extent of health insurance coverage his workers receive.

“That’s a pretty scary proposition if you’re an employee,” Fluke said. “Most of us as employees don’t have the freedom to choose any employer we want.”

She added that such a policy could be extended from contraception to other medical procedures like blood transfusions or chemotherapy.

“This really can be applied to any health-care service by any employer for any reason,” she said.

Fluke said she wanted to clear up some misconceptions in the discussion of the mandate to provide contraception and other such services as part of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

She noted that contrary to what many people believe and what many media outlets say, the policy governs private insurance, not government-funded insurance, and it applies not to abortion but to birth control, including emergency contraception such as “Plan B.”

She noted that policies such as the one being hashed out under Obamacare have been in place in 20 states, in various forms, before the Affordable Care Act was passed. But when the question of how the Department of Health and Human Services would interpret the provisions in the law, the controversy erupted.

Fluke said that a federal law known as the religious freedom restoration act – passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling – is designed to prevent the federal government from imposing a substantial burden that would hamper an individual’s exercise of religious beliefs. If such a burden is found, the solution needs to be the least possible restrictive means of furthering the policy’s intent.

The question, she said, is whether the contraception policy would impose such a burden.

“I really have trouble getting my hands around where the substantial burden is,” she said.

The result of the debate, Fluke said, may lead to what she called “some really dangerous ground legally,” particularly when it is extended from religious-based institutions to cover the individual religious beliefs of an employer like Hobby Lobby.

She noted that the Senate last year voted narrowly to reject the so-called Blunt amendment, which opponents said would have allowed employers to opt out of providing no-cost coverage for contraceptives or other health care that violates their religious or moral beliefs.

After the 51-48 vote, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the fight over the issue was not over and is likely to be settled in the courts. Fluke praised the Senate vote, saying, “Questions of religious liberty shouldn’t be determined by a hand count.”

She noted that other questions have already arisen or are likely to, such as whether a hospital can refuse to put a patient on life support, or whether religious-affiliated adoption services can turn away same-sex couples as potential parents, or whether pharmacists who are anti-abortion can refuse to provide Plan B when there are no other pharmacies available locally.

While she acknowledged that “from a cold-hearted legal perspective, it shouldn’t matter how true or how crazy a religious belief is,” she said that part of what the issue highlights is what degree of respect there is for a religion, no matter what its size is.

The larger question, she said, is what this debate means for society, in terms of how much people should be willing to care for each other.

“Sometimes,” she said, “that means paying for things we don’t agree with, because other people are paying for things they don’t agree with.”

And she praised those who address the issue in measured tones, a tack she said she tries to take but is not always successful. She said her moment in the uncomfortable Limbaugh spotlight showed how the media can create and perpetuate an image that is far from the truth.

“There have been a lot of people who have projected onto me that I’m much more of a firebrand than I actually am,” Fluke said, adding: “I think right now we have a lot of screamers and not so many talkers. I’m trying to be a talker.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.